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Earning a Master's in Forensic Psychology Online

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Heightened concerns about serious crimes of all kinds drive the increasing demand for forensic psychologists. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 14% employment growth for psychologists between 2016 and 2026, including those with forensic specialties.

While a bachelor's degree in psychology, criminal justice, or a related area builds a foundation for the study of forensic psychology, an online master's in forensic psychology allows students to move into high-demand careers in criminal justice, legal, and court settings. The degree also serves as a gateway to doctoral study and clinical practice.

This guide discusses what to expect from an online forensic psychology master's program, the career and salary outlook for degree holders, and suggestions for financial assistance and other professional resources.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master's Degree in Forensic Psychology?

Students with undergraduate degrees often pursue a master's in forensic psychology online to acquire specialized training that sets them apart in the job market. The flexibility of distance learning appeals to working professionals, parents, and individuals with commitments that hinder their ability to attend an on-campus program. While professional certifications in forensic specialties may improve employment prospects in criminal justice fields, a master's unlocks many career possibilities in areas like counseling, consulting, and clinical practice.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Forensic Psychology?

Pursuing Specializations

Graduates of forensic psychology online master's programs acquire the skills needed to pursue specialized professional roles as trial consultants and expert witnesses. In these positions, they provide testimony for personal injury and civil law cases, consult on issues of family law and domestic abuse, and diagnose criminal and deviant behavior to assess threat risk and treatment options. Some forensic psychologists specialize in investigation, examining evidence to construct criminal profiles. Other psychologists work as legal researchers and educators for attorneys and law enforcement personnel.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Employment prospects for graduates of online forensic psychology master's programs continue to expand. Because the demand for forensic psychologists outstrips the supply, graduates with advanced degrees, work experience, and specialized skills and certifications can expect to move into positions with more responsibility and better salaries. Licensed forensic psychologists who work in private practice and clinical settings usually need a doctorate, but graduates holding master's degrees can purse several career paths not only in criminal justice and correctional settings but in consulting and counseling fields.

Online Learning Technology

Many forensic psychology courses rely on online instructional technology, using legal simulations and web-based case studies as teaching tools. In addition to the integration of educational technology into the curriculum, an online master's in forensic psychology, like most social science graduate degrees, incorporates training in technological applications. Recent advances in online technology provide forensic psychologists with a tool kit for criminal investigations, evidence collection, and profiling. Master's programs introduce students to clinical assessment software, computerized mental health screening, online behavioral testing, and technology-based exposure therapy.

Prerequisites for Online Forensic Psychology Programs

Entrance requirements for online forensic psychology master's programs vary significantly from school to school, but most admissions panels request a variety of documentation to determine an applicant's preparedness for graduate work.

    • Work Experience: Because most forensic psychology positions require at least a master's, few bachelor's degree holders acquire work experience in the field. Students often apply to forensic psychology online master's programs directly after receiving their undergraduate degree in psychology, criminal justice, or a related social or behavioral science. Applicants sometimes seek this degree to transition out of another field.
    • Exams and Test Scores: While the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) provides schools with an indicator of how applicants might perform in challenging graduate courses, not all online master's in forensic psychology programs require the GRE for admission. Programs that do not ask for GRE scores rely on other measures of student achievement. They consider overall undergraduate performance, including GPA, personal statements, and references.
    • Coursework: Students who majored in psychology as undergraduates, with minors or concentrations in criminal justice and related disciplines, comprise the majority of applicants to online master's in forensic psychology programs. While admission committees do not look for specific coursework, they give preference to students with high GPAs in courses like research methods and statistics, psychology and the law, deviance and abnormal behavior, and criminal investigations.
    • Recommendations: Graduate schools take letters of recommendation very seriously. Most applications require three or more letters from an undergraduate faculty member or adviser who can speak specifically about the applicant's academic ability, work ethic, and career goals. Students who completed an internship or research project in a forensics-related field should request a reference from the faculty member who supervised their work.
    • Essays: Most students applying to a forensic psychology master's online or in an on-campus program must submit a personal statement or essay describing their interest in the field and their educational and career goals. Format and length requirements differ by program, but all schools pay close attention to the applicant's writing skills and ability to communicate clearly.
    • Interviews: A few master's programs and most Ph.D. programs require a personal interview as a prerequisite for admission. Some programs conduct these interviews via Skype, while other programs may require a campus visit. Online programs that admit new students into cohort-based learning groups may require a face-to-face meeting or group interview with other candidates applying for the same cohort.
    • International Students: Requirements for international students differ for each school. Nonresident students interested in online master's degrees should check with their intended program before applying. Programs usually require minimum scores on both the GRE and the TOEFL/IELTS test. For international students already in the U.S., immigration regulations restrict the number of online courses or require in-person components for courses taken by certain visa holders.

How Much Can I Make with a Master's Degree in Forensic Psychology?

The BLS reports a median annual salary of $77,030 for all psychologists. Professionals working in government positions, which include many graduates with forensics training, receive the highest pay. Besides work experience, earning a graduate credential greatly enhances salary prospects. While traditional careers within legal settings continue to offer competitive salaries, nontraditional but well-paying positions allow forensic psychologists to move into counseling and consulting roles, addressing issues such as school shootings, workplace harassment, and domestic and international terrorism.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Forensic Psychology Graduates

Career Stats Description

Forensic Psychologist

Median Pay: $77,030

Job Growth: 14%

Master's students who choose to pursue a doctorate can become forensic psychologists. Forensic psychologists apply their knowledge of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral disorders to help judges, attorneys, and other legal professionals understand how psychological principles affect civil or criminal court cases.

Ideal for: Data-driven fact-finders, with good communication and analytical skills and a legal mindset.

Forensic Science Technician

Median Pay: $57,850

Job Growth: 17%

These professionals collect, catalog, preserve, and analyze evidence for criminal investigations. They may work at crime scenes or perform chemical, biological, and microscopic analysis in laboratory settings.

Ideal for: Logical and analytical-minded problem-solvers with the training to apply and interpret scientific principles.

Postsecondary Teacher

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 15%

Postsecondary educators teach courses in undergraduate and graduate forensic psychology and related disciplines. Their duties also include advising students, conducting research, and serving on committees.

Ideal for: Skilled communicators with the ability to present, explain, analyze, and critique conceptual ideas and research findings.

Additional Careers for Master's in Forensic Psychology Graduates

Career Stats Description

Probation Officer

Median Pay: $51,410

Job Growth: 6%

These professionals assist in the rehabilitation of criminal offenders who have been released into the community on probation. Probation officers work with their clients to meet conditions of their release and avoid repeat incarceration.

Ideal for: Emotionally stable personalities who possess a broad knowledge of law and the ability to exhibit understanding and impartiality.

Clinical Counselor

Median Pay: $47,257

Job Growth: 14%

Licensed clinical counselors supervise, coach, and train staff; prepare treatment plans for clients and patients; conduct psychological assessments; and oversee counseling sessions.

Ideal for: Team leaders who display empathy and cultural competency working with diverse groups. These professionals must also possess excellent listening and communication proficiencies.

Research Scientist

Median Pay: $77,674

Job Growth: 14%

Research scientists work in government organizations, private organizations, and educational institutions conducting pure and applied research, analyzing data, and publishing their findings in scientific journals, books, and/or electronic media.

Ideal for: Analytical, organized, and evidence-oriented thinkers with technical and writing expertise.

Department Chair (College/University)

Median Pay: $84,207

Job Growth: 15%

Department chairs administer the curriculum and program goals of their academic units within colleges and universities, hiring and evaluating faculty and staff, overseeing budgets, reviewing course requirements and scheduling, and advising students.

Ideal for: Efficient and sociable team builders with strong leadership and organizational abilities.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, PayScale, 2017-2018

Paying for an Online Master's in Forensic Psychology

Several factors affect the cost of an online master's in forensic psychology. Tuition rates vary by school with discounts sometimes offered for in-state students, military personnel, and other designated groups. Online learners generally qualify for the same financial aid and scholarships available to on-campus students. Accelerated degrees that can be completed in less than two years provide a money-saving option for students who can handle the pace. Part-time programs appeal to students who need to maintain family and work obligations while taking courses.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants, and Scholarships

While paying for an online master's in forensic psychology poses a major challenge for most students, many organizations offer merit- and need-based scholarships specifically geared toward graduate work.

What to Expect from a Master's Level Online Forensic Psychology Program

Although degree requirements for an online master's in forensic psychology vary by program, students usually complete their studies in two years. Most degrees require a capstone project or written thesis. Online formats also vary across programs. Cohort models that group students together throughout the program provide peer support but may take longer to finish. Other programs offer all or most classes in a flexible, asynchronous format, enabling students to complete coursework at their own pace.

Major Milestones

  1. Completion of Concentrations and Specialized Electives

    Students usually complete core requirements for the online master's in the first two semesters before deciding on electives or concentrations. This specialized coursework might focus on subfields such as family law, substance abuse, victimology, and cybercrime.

  2. Capstone Coursework

    A capstone experience invites students to integrate knowledge and skills from across the curriculum, applying what they have learned to develop a complete and independent research project. Students typically enroll in the capstone course as they near graduation.

  3. Internship

    Some programs offer students the chance to work under the supervision of a forensic psychologist in a real-world setting. Online programs often enable students to find internships near their homes, and a few offer virtual internship opportunities.

  4. Thesis Preparation and Defense

    Students choosing a thesis option should begin crafting their proposal at least two semesters before graduation. They must collect and analyze their data and present their completed written thesis for approval before the end of their final semester.

  5. Career Planning

    Most schools provide career placement services to online students. Students who plan to enter the workforce immediately following graduation should contact these offices for assistance with resume building, interviewing practice, and job searches.

  6. Licensure and Certification Testing and Applications

    Students who plan to apply for the American Board of Forensic Psychology licensure or certifications in specialized fields should research eligibility requirements and testing dates. They should also check on state licensing requirements where they intend to work.

Coursework

The following course descriptions illustrate the topics and themes within the forensic psychology field that students can expect to study at the master's level.

Techniques and Practice in Forensic Psychology

This course explores the most prevalent applications in forensic psychology, covering topics like eyewitness testimony, risk assessment, jury selections, and profiling. Students learn how to analyze the legal concepts of criminal competence, legal insanity, and due process.

Psychopathology and Abnormal Behavior

This examination of the major forms of abnormal, dysfunctional and maladaptive behavior focuses on adult psychopathology. Students learn about assessments, evaluations, definitions of disorders, and diagnostic criteria using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Forensic Psychology and the Legal System

Students in this course learn to apply psychological theories and methods to criminal, civil, and family law. The course examines the roles of forensic psychologists in court cases within these areas, as expert witnesses, trial consultants, and specialists in jury selection.

Criminal Investigation

This course teaches students how to conduct successful and ethical investigations, using simulations and case studies. Students learn how to analyze and evaluate evidence, summarize findings, and present evidentiary procedure in criminal and legal cases.

Domestic Violence

This course examines the psychological profile of perpetrators of domestic violence and the impact on victims, families, and society. Course material places a special emphasis on how the criminal court system and social services handle domestic violence cases.

Licenses and Certifications

Master's level forensic psychologists may enter several professional roles without certification or state licensure. However, graduates of master's programs acquire tangible career benefits by pursuing the advance training needed for licensure or preparing for voluntary certifications. These credentials enhance marketability by validating experience and expertise. Each state establishes its own requirements for licensure, which typically include a clinical doctorate degree, work experience, and passing the professional practice exam. Some courts may not accept competency reports submitted by unlicensed psychologists.

    • Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology: Required in most states for licensure, students usually take this exam as soon as they complete the necessary coursework for their doctoral degree. Administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards, the EPPP costs $1,200 plus test site fees.
    • Specialty Board Certification in Forensic Psychology: Although not legally required for practice, this certification serves as the highest credential available for forensic psychologists. Applicants must complete their doctoral degree and demonstrate specialized experience before becoming eligible to take the written and oral examination. A fee of $125 must be submitted with the application.
    • American Board of Forensic Document Examiners Certification: The ABFDE offers this voluntary certification to specialists in document examination who hold a bachelor's degree from an ABFDE-approved institution and two years of professional experience. Applicants must submit a $350 fee before taking the comprehensive written, oral, and practical examinations required for certification.
    • Certified Forensic Mental Health Evaluator: State-licensed mental health psychologists, counselors, clinical social workers, and therapists working in the specialty of forensic mental health evaluation may apply for this voluntary certification. Candidates must complete written and oral examinations and a practice sample review of a mental health evaluation. A $715 fee must accompany applications.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Membership in one of the professional associations for forensic psychology provides a competitive advantage to students preparing to enter the job market and recent graduates establishing their careers. These organizations offer many opportunities for beginning professionals to network with experienced practitioners and gain valuable information about new advances in specialized areas. Many professional associations sponsor conferences, award internships and fellowships, and provide certification and continuing education programs. Members may also access career resources and job listings.

  • American Academy of Forensic Psychology: AAFP, as the educational division of the American Board of Forensic Psychology, administers the most prominent certification program in forensic psychology. AAFP offers continuing education courses and confers awards to outstanding practitioners in the field.
  • American Psychology – Law Society: This affiliate of the American Psychological Association offers a variety of career-enhancing resources for forensic psychologists, including a job bank. Student members benefit from valuable information on graduate programs, internships, and postdoctoral opportunities.
  • International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology: The IACFP promotes the development of evidence- and practitioner-informed policies to support correctional and forensic psychologists and other professionals providing mental health services to criminal offenders. It publishes the monthly, peer-reviewed journal Criminal Justice and Behavior.
  • Forensic Expert Witness Association: FEWA provides training and certification for forensic psychologists and consultants seeking to establish themselves or acquire professional development as expert witnesses. The association hosts chapters in nine geographic areas across the United States.
  • Society for Police and Criminal Psychology: Dedicated to the scientific study of criminal behavior within the criminal justice system, the SPCP administers a certification program, the Diplomate in Police Psychology, emphasizing the various services forensic psychologists and other specialists provide to law enforcement agencies.
  • The National Institute of Justice: The NIJ, as the research, development, and evaluation branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, offers myriad resources, training tools, and funding opportunities for professionals, students, and other individuals interested in criminal and juvenile justice.
  • Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods: This major study by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology examines the role of scientific validity in the legal system and makes recommendations to various federal agencies to strengthen forensic science applications in the courtroom.
  • Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology: Developed by the AP-LS in association with the American Psychological Association, these guidelines cover the professional conduct and practice of forensic psychologists in the legal system and other organizations.
  • Forensic Psychology Resources and References: The Zur Institute, which provides continuing education for mental health professionals, maintains this comprehensive collection of forensic psychology resources. This institute also features links to associations that focus on law and behavioral science and articles on major specializations in the field.
  • All-About-Forensic-Psychology.com: A useful resource for students and others new to the discipline of forensic psychology, this website features an introductory overview to the field, discussions on current professional practices, and information on careers.